Saturday, January 5, 2008

Too hot to bake

Melbourne's weather is the butt of many jokes, mostly about its unpredictability. Despite our many long, grey days in winter, Melbourne does do summer with a vengeance and often to excess: days of 40 degrees can be followed by days of barely 20 degrees and cool changes during the middle of hot days can see the temperature quickly plummet.

We're in the middle of a sizzling hot heatwave at the moment. New Year's Eve was 41.1 degrees celsius (106 fahrenheit), making it the hottest day in the hottest year on record in our state. There's been little respite - it was followed by 41.2 on 1 January and it's been high 30s for the past few days.

All of which means I am avoiding the kitchen (which is not such a bad thing after the indulgent excesses of the Christmas season!) The kitchen is a warm and comforting place in winter, with the enticing smells of roasts, casseroles and soups wafting around the house. But in summer, it is a place where no-one wants to be. A quick trip through to grab a cold drink from the fridge, a biscuit to nibble on or some fruit from the fruit bowl and we're out again. It's certainly not a place to linger near a hot stove, or be bothered planning meals or baking cakes.

Thank goodness for light healthy salads that require no cooking, for an outdoor BBQ to sear meat on and for friends with beach houses. The leftover Christmas ham is chopped finely and mixed with corn kernels, spring onions and cheese into a basic batter to make fritters. Juicy pieces of fish and crispy chips are perfect at the beach. Fat porterhouse steaks, spicy kebabs and shaslicks, herby rissoles and flavoured sausages taste all the better for being cooked outdoors, with the added bonus that the kitchen is free from both the cooking smells and the heat.

Glamourous salads accompany the meat: grated carrot mixed with currants, pinenuts, lemon juice and olive oil; the cool simplicity of green apple, celery and mayonnaise; farfalle bows teamed with capsicum, bacon, red onion and a dressing of sweet chilli sauce and whole-egg mayonnaise; little chat potatoes cooked and halved and mixed with sour cream, chives and crispy bacon; couscous flavoured with lemon juice, olive oil, pinenuts, spring onions and currants. It is a time of fresh flavours that can be put together with minimum fuss and no stove.

Soon I will venture back into the kitchen and start trying recipes from the two new cookbooks I received for Christmas. One was Bill Granger's latest, Holiday, which is, as always, full of simple delicious recipes to try. The other book is Secrets of the Red Lantern by Pauline Nguyen, a book that mixes Vietnamese recipes from the Nguyen's Sydney restaurant, Red Lantern, with the tale of their life, starting with their escape from Vietnam and eventual resettlement in Australia. It is a sumptuously designed, hardcover book, with the recipes broken up by stories and gorgeous photos. I love to eat Vietnamese food but have never cooked it much, so I'm looking forward to being guided by this wonderful book.

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